Lucifer's Valet

PISAN CANTOS: Kenner digression

Posted in Hermeneutic Friendship, Poeticks by lucifersvalet on 26 November 2009

but not The Pound Ezra. (That’s a Pound-like joke: when my sister & I were college roommates, she kept misreading the bookspine. It’s the kind of misprision that comes from knowing more rather than knowing less. It’s the kind of joke that’s tolerable in Pound, elsewhere, not so much.) No, this from A Colder Eye: The Modern Irish Writers. I’ve something to say about the book,  but for now I’ll excerpt a part, relevant to a common theme in the scholarship, vestigial Imagism in the Cantos:

To an exhaustion that was beginning to be perceived in standard English, Modernism early in the twentieth century brought two remedies that at first seem diametrically opposed. One was recourse to the Saxon hoard of strong verbs; the other was this Celtic habit of vivid static images.

“Celtic habit” in this case seems not as much linguistic anthropology as marketing ploy, a cousin to the “PQ (Peasant Quality)” required of Abbey Theater dramaturgy. But irrespective of questions of authenticity, there’s something interesting about the poetics of it.

To describe this “Celtic habit,” Kenner brings in Maire Cruise O’Brien:

Irish syntax concentrates on the expression of states rather than actions; its verbal system is highly aspective, with the subject of the sentence as the focus of the utterance and all occurrences relating back thereto. It shows a marked predilection for the substantival cast of sentence, i.e., a sentence where the noun carries the main burden of content.

Kenner’s example of the thing in prose is Lady Gregory’s apology for her great book, Cuchulain of Muirthemne:

I have told the whole story in plain and simple words, in the same way my old nurse Mary Sheridan used to be telling stories from the Irish long ago, and I a child at Roxborough.

The relevant bits are the two juxtaposed beings: the maid in the state of telling stories and Lady Gregory in the twin states of childhood & at-Roxborough-hood.

Kenner claims the contradiction between the demand, informed in part by Ernest Fenollosa, for vigorous verbs & the requirement, in this “Irish” aspective writing, for the copula gets resolved in Yeats’s masterly use of syntax, especially in his expert joining of syntax to stanza. As example, “The Fish” is provided:

Although you hinde in the ebb and flow

Of the pale tide when the moon is set,

The people of coming days will know

About the casting out of my net,

And how you have leaped times out of mind

Over the little silver cords,

And think that you were hard and unkind,

And blame you with many bitter words.

This sentence=poem provides the following lesson, according to Kenner: “The effect of such a sentence, with its ‘Irish’ layering of ‘and’ clauses, is to make not just one clause but the whole poem aspective, held in place for the looking.” (Note how the above quotation from Gregory would also be an example of “and”-clause layering.)

Which brings me to my point: this idea of aspective layering would seem to apply to The Pisan Cantos.

Now such a claim might fall under the Dept. of No Shit Sherlock. Nothing could be more obvious than these Cantos’ paratatic construction. But the Kenner formulation seems to highlight an important feature, that the poem proceeds by laying distinct images/thoughts/verbal tags one against the other. These Cantos are a lapidary mosaic, a setting-in-together of myriad well-worked bits.

For example, Canto 77, lines 203-222 (Hyphens represent stanza breaks. I haven’t recreated any indentations. If I ever figure out CSS I might be able to do poems right):

“If you had any f….n’ brain you’d be dangerous”

remarks Romano Ramona

to a by him designated c.s. in the scabies ward

the army vocabulary contains almost 48 words

one verb and participle one substantive υλη

one adjective and one phrase sexless that is

used as a sort of pronoun

from a watchman’s club to a vamp or fair lady

And Margherita’s voice was clear as the notes of a clavichord

tending her rabbit hutch

O Margaret of the seven griefs

who has entered the lotus”

Trade, trade, trade..” sang Lanier

and they say the gold her grandmother carried under her skirts for Jeff Davis

drowned her when she slipped from the landing boat;

doom of Atreus

(O Mercury god of thieves, you caduceus

is now used by the american army

as witness this packing case)

These 4 stanzas are starkly juxtaposed. No bit follows from the previous. Each element is coincidental: they are all true at the same time.

Which is not to say that there aren’t inferential connections in the poem. There’s all the economic stuff, “how the hell can we get any architecture when we order our columns by the gross”?

Still there is something appealing about this lapidary construction. It seems comparable to Benjamin’s constellations of fact in the Arcades Project. It has an austerity amenable to lyrical splendor through the refusal of narrative armatures. It’s a kind of realism, a technique for presenting the things themselves and nothing else.

Again, this is more Dept. of Sherlock, but what might be interesting is the difference between this aspective layering and an alternative construction technique for these Cantos, associative co-ordination. Given the dominant nostalgia of PC, given how much of the poems are catalogs of memories, one would expect many free associative connections between imagery. And there are sections with much of it, such as Canto 74, lines 247-278 (See above comment about CSS):

but in Tangier I saw from dead straw ignition

From a snake bite

fire came to the straw

from the fakir blowing

foul straw and an arm-long snake

that bit the tongue of the fakir making small holes

and from the blood of the holes

came fire when he stuffed the straw into his mouth

dirty straw that he took from the roadway

first smoke then the dull flame

that wd/ have been in the time of Rais Uli

when I rode out to Elson’s

near the villa of Perdicaris

or four years before that

elemental the thought the souls of children, if any,

but had rented a shelter for travelers

by foot from Siria, some of them

nor is it for nothing that the chrysalids mate in the air color di luce

green splendour and as the sun thru plae fingers

Lordly men are to earth o’ergiven

these the companions:

Fordie that wrote of giants

and William who dreamed of nobility

and Jim the comedian singing:

“Blarrney castle me darlin’

you’re nothing now but a StOWne”

and Plarr talking of mathematics

or Jepson lover of jade

Maurie who wrote historical novels

and Newbolt who looked twice bathed

are to earth o’ergiven.

Beginning with an extended (by PC standards) narrative about a snake charmer Pound had seen in Gibralter 37 years previously, and ending with a litany of fallen comrades, this passage is one big “that was in the time.” But there are not that many such passages in the poems, or as many as one might expect.

However, there is a sense that the whole poem has a “that was in the time” quality to it, & each of the lapidary bits is some bit of memory, whether or not its clearly connected to the bit before or the bit afterward.

But the present moment too has its turn in the poem and with great effect and that is the various sense impressions of life in prison. For example, counting the birds on the wires. Here too Sieburth’s idea of the importance of the black voices brought into the poem.

What seems most true is the the Pisan Cantos are never any one thing.


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